THE HIGH ALIVE: AN EPIC HOODOO DIPTYCH by Carlos Sirah, reviewed by Dave Karp

The 3rd Thing Press, a small Olympia, Washington, press, is explicitly committed to cross-genre, inter-surrectional experimental writing; it publishes books that challenge how we imagine. Carlos Sirah’s The High Alive: An Epic Hoodoo Diptych certainly fulfills that mission. Sirah’s book is a recent entry in the American tradition of bardic incantations, from Whitman onward, meant to reveal and perhaps heal the body politic. The book aims to address the implicit violence of our world, a world of local and larger wars that beggar black and brown people first, leaving human relationships and communities bombed out shells. Sirah addresses his theme through modernist formal openness, allusiveness and metaphorical ambition, and above all through his embrace of Afro-American artistic and spiritual traditions.

Sirah’s book can be described as a masque—a distinctively Afro-centric blues masque in two parts, “The Utterances” and “The Light Body.” The two books are presented “tête a bêche” (head to toe) much like trade science fiction and crime novels used to be printed; you flip the book and start from the back to read the second part—or as the center of the book reads, “END…BEGIN AGAIN.” The arguably pulpy format of Sirah’s sometimes arcane opus hints at the accessibility of this very un-pulpy book: while The High Alive challenges us through its metaphorical and allusive structure, it gives us more ways in than most modernist epics. Sirah’s writing is dramatic and tangy, mesmerizing through jagged lyric flights and, even more, through his skill with dialogue and characterization.

The part of The High Alive that will probably be most accessible to us is “The Light Body,” so perhaps they should read it first. Moving back and forth between dialogues and lyric passages, “The Light Body” dramatizes the difficult loving between Noah, a haunted Iraq War vet, and his childhood friend and lover Micah. Their dialogue can veer from the laden and tense to offhand memories:

The bike, Noah?

                                                            Was that before Nita died?

            Yes, before.

                                                            Before you got baptized?

           

            No, I got baptized the following summer.

            The revival my cousin came from Detroit.

                                                            Oh my god, with the car!

            With the car we stole.

                                                            Nigga! With the talking car we stole.

            She told us we could sit in it.

            She didn’t say drive.

            You always like to test.

            You wanted to be Michael Knight.

The backstory of their boyhood together in rural Mississippi, their negotiation of their gendered and sexual identities, their discovery of love, all enmeshed in Noah’s mental struggles with his lost leg and the past of the Iraq war that is still very present in his life, makes for compelling reading. Micah struggles to find his way past Noah’s numbing out:

In the dark

Micah bends before Noah’s

Sleeping body.

Micah places the glass on

His chest.

Micah listens

to Noah’s inside.

There is an ever-present threat of domestic violence between the two, but also the threat that Micah will never come to understand Noah’s “light body,” the version of himself still in Iraq, both traumatized and, in some sense, also visionary: “Oh, yes. // Carry me behind the sun.”

Formally, “The Light Body” recounts its troubled, incomplete journey of healing in various ways. There is dialogue and lyric poetry, often blues influenced. The text also works visually: the dialogue is sometimes pierced by the black, constructivist-like triangle that represents both Noah’s knife-blade and his double-consciousness. The text is interrupted by photographs of symbolic objects said to be found in the fields around Noah and Micah’s house and in the house itself. There is even a dance interlude of a kind (“SPRING: Micah Dances the Hi Holy Ha”). Still, what dominates is dialogue: the interplay of Noah and Micah, and also the dialogue between Noah and “Temple,” Sirah’s representation of an authoritative psychological and ideological establishment that both probes Noah’s wartime trauma and, in some sense, keeps him from recognizing it:

A temple presses against the body.

            And what about the [razor] blade, Noah?

                                                                                    It’s sharp. It feels good on my skin.

                                                                                    It cuts like a good blade should.

            A temple shadows the soul.

            Is that all?

                                                                                    When I press it to my skin, even a little, it                                                                                                          bleeds.

            A temple extols sacrifice.

            And what about the blood?       

                                    Sometimes I want to see the blood grow into a big pool around my head.

Hovering above all these contending voices, embodied in the lyric aspect of the book, is “Shu,” the West-African/ Hoodoo god Eshu, a god of the crossroads and transformations, who is invoked at key points and can be seen to inspire Micah’s dance and gestures as he tries to draw near to his lover:

            When Spring silences

            wilderness and the woods

            silence home and autumn

            silences the temple and the

            field silences the desert

                        -SHU-

                        unsettles

                        the world.

“The Light Body” ends with several pages printed white on black that seem to effect a spiritual transformation. However, that transformation is still not quite the conclusion; there is a photo of one of several purported handwritten notes from Noah to Micah. Noah warns Micah to keep his distance for his own good, but his words also suggest that this relationship may last:

                        I’m writing this letter because I do remember what it was like before. So unless you are awake, please stay on your side of the bed. And so for now, I’ll just keep going through the motions. —Love Noah.

            P.S. I’ll start taking the Viagra again, but sometimes it makes me hurl.

The second part of Sirah’s masque, “The Utterances,” enacts a vaster journey of healing. With all the forever wars of the last fifty and five thousand years as backstory and set in an unspecified, archetypally bombed out city that could just as easily be Nineveh as Mosul, this book again alternates between two kinds of writing. There are syncopated lyric passages that dramatize the ongoing gathering of congregants and preparation for a kind of rebirthing ritual, the grinding of “Maize-Maize” in which body and bone can be reborn as a new body-politic. There is also a series of conversations between symbolically named and pithily contrary figures—Naif and Rebl, Mutta and Chile, Make and Kees among others. These conversations collectively explore what endemic violence does to personal relationships and sense of self. Dialogue and lyric elements are connected through repeated references to bodies in the streets, in particular to a single, vaguely alive body that sometimes gasps, moans and stutters and finally, at the climax of the enacted ritual, speaks its piece.

Another trope encompassing the whole book and pitted against the violence of the world is what Sirah calls “Theory of Bessie”:

The war horn. Not. The flatted fifth. Please. Window open. Breath vacates. Tonight. Rest.

            Open your mouth. Fill. Your mouth. Be filled with sound. Bessie’s breath. With us. Bessie’s

            breath.

This blues voice and vision enacted in that quotation informs but also encompasses the other perspectives or “theories” voiced in “The Utterances”—theories in that they are ways of making sense of and responding to this world and its damage. “Theory of Bessie” is not only described but VOICED in the book: in the noises—the moans and the “Stutter”—of a body, of a horn, of a step—that interject into the conversations, and in the way Sirah punctuates, pauses and leaps in his lyrics:

Theories honk and holler. Looking up. Gentle signs. Of departure. Skeins. Of black. Under sky.

            Black.

            The migration. Of sound. Subject to object. Called. Out. To each. Others. Marking. Ways

            Beneath. The cloud. Against lanes. Of sky. Belonging.

            Bessie honks.

“The Utterances” is more diffuse than “The Light Body,” less invested in a single story, and more beholden to allegory and type. The book is also less graphically adventurous than “The Light Body,” which makes its structure clearer to us but perhaps makes the world it dramatizes less full. Even so, the broken, recursive, propulsive energy and woven metaphor of lines like the ones quoted catches us in their rhythm. And the variety and energy of the dialogues engage easily, moving from symbolic suggestion to straightforward banter. Here, from the very first dialogue, are Naif and Rebl surveying a body they find in the street:

                                                            Rebl

                                                                        Now, don’t be nervous.

                                                                        Have you made a determination?

            Naif

            It’s definitely a man.

            Or definitely a woman.

            Or definitely human.

                                                                        Rebl

                                                                        All dummies come from…

                                                                        Wait. Where are you from?

Sirah has said that in this book he was inspired by Zora Neale Hurston’s “Aspects of Negro Expression,” with its emphasis on the essentially dramatic, gorgeous and angular art created by Black Americans, and all those qualities are on view in both “The Utterances” and “The Light Body,” making the give and take of their arguments and the gradual accretion of symbolic gestures and allusions into a moving pageant of pain, intransigence, resilience and transcendence. A book like Sirah’s does not simply describe the world as it is but tries to imagine what potential it has: where a new world could emerge from under this one, full of people thinking different thoughts and finding different gods to worship than our insufficient ones. What if our “theories” were to be subsumed in the “Theory of Bessie”? To give oneself up to Sirah’s vision in The High Alive is to travel to some such better place.

The High Alive: An Epic Hoodoo Diptych, by Carlos Sirah. Olympia, Washington: The 3rd Thing Press, February 2020. 386 pages. $28.00, paper.

Dave Karp is associated with Margin Shift, a Seattle, Washington, reading series dedicated to supporting writers outside the mainstream. His articles and reviews have appeared in Golden Handcuffs and Heavy Feather Review.

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